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Anaheim, other OC cities could see major political changes with district elections

Several historically conservative Orange County cities could see significant political shifts this year as they move away from at-large voting to single-member district elections for city council races.

Anaheim is among them.

In the city where Disneyland resort dominates, Latino residents sued to force changes on the Anaheim City Council that currently seats five members, all of whom are white. 

It's a scenario also being played out in other Orange County cities undergoing demographic change.

Latinos, Asians and others of color have challenged at-large elections under the Voting Rights Act, arguing the old system left them without a political voice. They said majority white voters can stack the councils even though certain areas of their cities may have majorities that are diverse.

Like Anaheim, Garden Grove and Buena Park are also holding their first single-member district elections this fall, and voters in Fullerton will decide if they want to move from at-large voting to district elections.

The push for more representative elections has further filtered down to smaller contests, including the Los Angeles Community College District trustees race. And a challenge in another conservative stronghold, Santa Clarita, is changing the city council contest there.

Anaheim: tale of two cities?

Jose Moreno walks past a mini-mall on Anaheim’s East Street. The street runs through the middle of Anaheim in what’s called the flatlands.

“Well, you just look at the streets," he said. "Look, they have not been paved in a long time, they are patched up.”

The mini-mall also looks a little faded. There are some mom-and-pop shops, a restaurant, a grocery store, most of them Latino-owned, and a vacant supermarket sits across the street.

Just a stone’s throw to the southwest west is the Disneyland resort with its luxury hotels, clean roads and crowds of tourists.

This visible contrast is the main argument that supporters pushed for Anaheim's voting districts. They are the final product of a 2012 Voting Rights Act lawsuitbrought by Moreno and two other Anaheim residents. This general election, Anaheim is holding its first district-based election for its City Council in its 159-year history.

Anaheim's population has grown to about 343,000 people and 52.8 percent Hispanic, according to census estimates for 2014. That shift has been seen countywide.

In the 2000 Census, whites made up 51 percent of Orange County's then 2.8 million residents. Census Bureau estimates for 2014 show the white population has declined to 43 percent of its 3 million residents while Hispanics made up 34 percent, Asians 18.5 percent and blacks or African-Americans 1.5 percent.

What Anaheim is experiencing isn't unique, said Jodi Balma, a professor of political science at Fullerton College.

"The problem that has led to district-based elections is that we just haven't had a lot of diversity," said Balma.

Proponents of voting districts in Anaheim charged that the old, at-large elections made for two Anaheims: One for tourists and affluent majority white residents of Anaheim Hills, and another for those who live in the rest of the city, referred to as the flatlands.

Over half of Anaheim's population is Latino, but the city is diverse: Immigrants from the Middle East, Asians and African-Americans also call Anaheim home.

Moreno, a Cal State Long Beach professor, ran for City Council once before, in the at-large days. This time he is running in District 3, his home district, which is heavily Latino.

He complains that while the city spends heavily in the resort area and gives breaks to developers, residents don’t see much investment in the flatlands.

“It’s really unclear where those resources go, because you go to our local parks and they’re what some people call brown fields. I mean, just dirt," Moreno said. "We’re a very facilities-poor city as it relates to our community centers for families and for children in the neighborhoods. That is the reality of Anaheim.”

Others, like Orange County blogger Matthew Cunningham who writes the conservative Anaheim Blog, disagree.

“The resources are making their way to the flatlands, and they’re making their way to the resort district," Cunningham said. "So that is a big lie that’s being told when activists and politicians talk about there being two Anaheims. There is one Anaheim.”

Others take a middle ground. Commercial roofing contractor Mitch Caldwell lives in the council's District 3 and agrees with Moreno that public services in his neighborhood could be better. But he thinks the city needs to keep investing heavily in the resort area because it depends on the revenue from tourism.

“We have the resort," Caldwell said. "It’s here. We can’t change it. And we have to continually invest in the convention center, we have to do public-private partnerships to make sure that it continues to grow. We have a giant bond that we have to pay. These things get left out of that 'giveaway' statement that is made.”

Investment is evident in some parts of town outside of the resort area. A drive along Lincoln Avenue, one of the main arteries through the flatlands, leads through downtown Anaheim. The civic center section near City Hall has been spruced up. There are hip restaurants, a cultural center and loft apartments.

A short distance south on Anaheim Boulevard sits the Packing House, a commercial center that opened in 2014, advertising its “20-plus artisan eateries.” And near Anaheim Stadium, in an area dubbed the “Platinum Triangle,” high-end condos and retail stores are in the works. 

Changes evident in Anaheim

But it's hard to miss the other Anaheim. West of downtown, Lincoln Avenue again gives way to a mix of tire shops, massage parlors, and liquor stores, tucked into stretches of mini-malls that have seen better days.

In the western part of the city along Brookhurst Avenue sits the neighborhood known as Little Arabia, now part of District 2. 

Arab-American community leaders here said they’ve worked hard to turn Brookhurst into a thriving commercial strip. There are restaurants and grocery stores with imported goods, and boutiques selling Islamic fashions.

Local activist Rashad al-Dabbagh thinks the city is divided. He remembers what the strip used to look like.

"There were lots of shady businesses, motels, shady activities, check cashing, massage parlors," Al-Dabbagh said. "A lot of it has changed, but in a city where you see Disneyland and nice places, this is not how it should look like. It should look a lot better.”

Al-Dabbagh lives in the adjacent District 4, but his work is in this neighborhood. He and others say they’d like for the city to fix up the area, perhaps designate it officially as Little Arabia.

“Put up a sign," he said, "help the businesses help themselves, and bring more people to come to this part of town.”

Having a voting district that encompasses Little Arabia is a start at least, said local activist Rida Hamida, who with others pushed to keep the neighborhood in a single district.

"It's an identity for the Arab-American community, a long-standing legacy of the Arab-American contributions, not just in Anaheim but in Orange County," Hamida said.

Little Arabia’s residents aren’t just Arab-American, but also Latino and Asian. It’s a diversity not seen on the current Anaheim council.

KPCC reached out to the two council incumbents running for reelection, who declined interviews. But District 3 incumbent Jordan Brandman left a voicemail saying he supports the single-member districts.

Part of the districting change will add two new seats, creating a seven-member council. But for this election, voters will cast ballots for only four seats, those covering Districts 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Balma at Fullerton College said judging by the 20 candidates vying for these four council seats, at least the diversity goal is being met. The pool of candidates is ethnically diverse and includes business owners and community activists. Among them is Donna Acevedo-Nelson, whose son was shot by Anaheim police in 2012. Another candidate is a Filipino-American Catholic priest.

“There are three Latinos running in one district," Balma said. "There are a lot of diverse candidates on the ballot, a lot of people knocking on doors, which we haven’t seen before, a lot of younger people that are running for office.

"So you really are getting a lot more excitement, a lot more participation.”

Results in November will show if Anaheim will also get a more diverse city council.

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